3 Times not to travel-sketch

Yes! I always have something with me so I can sketch, always. Yes! Sketching always beats taking selfies. Yes! Sketching makes travel exponentially more rewarding and memorable. Travel-sketching is all about capturing the moment, slowing down enough to actually look and see what you spent all that money and vacation time to be standing in front of. BUT here are three times you should not sketch.

1 – When sketching becomes everything

Thanks to Instagram I am able to learn from and follow the journeys of many other sketchers. Recently there was a post of one sketcher’s efforts from a single day in a town. This sketcher had done at least 15 sketches of buildings that day. That is a lot, and a lot more than I would want to do, it would mean the whole day was spent sketching.

Now, I do understand a few things about this post. The person who posted this is a professional sketcher, they were there with other sketchers at a workshop. So it is understandable that they would do more than they might do if they were on a trip for pleasure. It did make me ponder, that though they saw a lot of buildings in that city, they had such a short time at each that they were not really savoring the moments, which is my goal for sketching while I travel – sketching on assignment would be different.

Since I stopped traveling as a seminar speaker a year ago, which kept me on the road 40-50% of the time, sketching has changed. Now I spend most of my time in the Mukilteo area of Washington, a beautiful place for sure. Often I head out for the purpose of finding something to sketch for my column in The Mukilteo Beacon – sketching is the objective, not simply capturing a time and place. On those trips sketching is everything, and I find it changes the sketching experience. When I traveled heavily each day took me to a new place with new things to sketch, it was fresh, I just sketched what was in front of me.

The message here is that you don’t have to sketch everything. Put the pen and pad down and just enjoy the view, listen to the sounds, watch the people. Sketch the significant things, while allowing some time to just soak it all in.

2- When sketching affects other people

Traveling with other people means being sensitive to what each person wants to do. Sketching takes time, thankfully Tricia is patient with my wanting to stop and do a sketch. Sadly I have not always been as sensitive to realize that me sketching has been a bit selfish. We have found a few ways that work well to balance it all out.

One, she is a photographer, if you don’t already follow her blog you should: Travels Through My Lens. While I do a quick sketch, she wanders off snapping some nice photos for her blog, knowing that I will be right where she left me. If the people you travel with are not photographers they may have other interests they can pursue while you sketch.

Another tool is that I learned to do quick sketches. I can sketch most things in five minutes or less, it may not be the kind of sketch I would do if I had more time, but it works to capture the moment. I did this sketch standing on the trail in less than five minutes at Yosemite Falls, while Tricia walked a bit further down the trail, then I added watercolor back at the hotel.


Sketch when other people are sleeping, I read in Suhite’s blog that she uses the time of day much as I do. Many of the people I travel with, including Tricia, prefer to sleep-in a bit later in the morning. I am an early-to-bed early-to-rise sort of guy. When we were in Robion, France I was always up before everyone else; loved it, I went to the cafe, grabbed a café, and sketched. By the time they joined me I was ready to give them my attention.

3 – When sketching is unsafe or inappropriate

There are cultures where sketching a person is considered intrusive or disrespectful. Enough said. As sketchers we are there to embrace places that are different than our own, not there to impose ourself on others. Some museums and historical locations require permission, some even post no sketching, when in doubt ask, and respect the answer. Take a photo if allowed, and do a sketch later at a cafe with a glass of wine.

There have been many on-line discussions regarding safety while sketching, I get that. Traveling as I have for over 25 years I find that most of the times that people get into trouble it is due to lack of vigilance and caution. Rarely have I ever felt at risk, even in places like Barcelona, Jakarta, or South Africa, all of which have reputations for danger, but I go out of my way to reduce the risk. Avoid standing out, dress like the locals if possible, don’t stand on a street corner with a map looking puzzled, learn a few words of the local language, and be aware of what is going on around you. 

So often I have seen someone leave their bag on a counter, wide open with passport and wallet in plain sight, while they turned away or even walked a few steps away; that is an open invitation. Since I always get aisle seats on airplanes I see this frequently: a woman boarding the plane with her purse over her arm, the bag open wide, passport on top. Grabbing it would be so easy. Use common sense – if you are sketching, keep your bag in front of you, not behind, or loop the strap around your foot.

If you do find yourself in a risky neighborhood, or situation – protests or strikes, places where you are just out of place – don’t sketch, as it draws attention. If you are going to try to capture some of the action on paper, get out of sight and be safe.

There is plenty of risk, the reason we fear it more when we travel is because we are in an unfamiliar place, and we are so easily distracted. So stay focused, on the sketch and on what is going on around you.

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